Testing for Tech Literacy

As U.S. students fall further behind in math and science, the Education Dept. commissions the first nationwide assessment on technology

Test Tech
Malanga teaches eighth-graders car design and Web design in his technology class at Riverhead Middle School in Riverhead, NY.

On a recent Monday morning, the eighth graders in Chris Malanga's technology class at Riverhead (N.Y.) Middle School were hard at work constructing Web pages. Scattered across computer screens in this classroom about 75 miles east of Manhattan were Web pages reflecting students' distinct personalities and interests. One blared rap music. Others boasted purple text over garish background images. These were no mere MySpace (NWS) profile pages, constructed with a few clicks of the mouse from a menu. These students built their pages from scratch, writing pure HTML in a text file. "They like that it's something they learned in school that they can take home and use to jazz up their MySpace [pages]," Malanga says.

Before they embarked on Web pages, the students crafted tiny cars complete with bumpers, airbags, and seat belts designed for an especially fragile passenger—an egg. They watched videos on auto design, drafted 3D models of their cars using Google (GOOG) Sketchup, a free online application, and spent hours gluing together pieces of wood, cardboard, rubber bands, and balloons.

Technology classes like this are entering the curriculum in schools around the country, but they're not common enough, say educators, company executives, and policymakers. In a bid to make technology literacy more widespread, the National Assessment Governing Board this month announced plans to develop the first nationwide assessment of technological learning in U.S. schools. NAGB, a government-commissioned independent council, awarded nonprofit WestEd, a 40-year-old educational research and service group, a $1.86 million contract to work with educators, school officials, the business community, and the public on constructing the test, set to hit schools in 2012.

Laying a Foundation

NAGB officials and others hope the test will help reverse the slide in U.S. test scores and enrollment in such subjects as science, math, and engineering, and ultimately address the more generally waning competitiveness of the U.S. in technology. "If you look at the business community and post-secondary work, those sectors really need students who have science, technology, and engineering backgrounds to fill jobs in these new and dynamic fields," says NAGB Executive Director Mary Crovo.

Enrollment in graduate-level computer science and engineering is dropping, says the National Science Foundation. The number of full-time graduate enrollments in computer science and engineering courses decreased 11%, to 29,800, in 2004, the last year for which data is available, since peaking in 2002, according to the foundation. The number of foreigners with bachelor's degrees holding jobs in U.S. science and engineering almost doubled, to 19%, from 1990 to 2005.

No standardized test alone can reverse those trends, but backers hope it will lay a foundation for renewed and deeper emphasis on science and engineering at the earliest levels. To ensure the test's efficacy, San Francisco-based WestEd in December will convene a panel of advisers that includes instructors and representatives of such tech bellwethers as Intel (INTC) and Google as well as other yet-to-be-named companies in manufacturing, civil engineering, and other areas. "Our world is changing, the way we do business is changing, our reliance on each other is changing," says Paige Kuni, worldwide manager of K-12 education for Intel's Education Initiative and a member of the panel. "Kids have to be able to master those types of skills to be ready for a U.S. economy when they come out of the school system."

Engaging the General Public

Companies like Intel need people who not only know how to use a computer, but also have a sophisticated understanding of concepts like security, privacy, and intellectual property that will evolve with technology in coming years, Kuni says. Her hope is that a national tech test will spur more schools to teach these skills since many educators just assume that kids are naturally tech-savvy and can pick this up on their own. "Adults in our society and in other countries assume that because kids are digital natives, they automatically know how to use technology in meaningful work," Kuni says. "Just because a kid can use text messages doesn't mean they know how to [do things like] analyze data deeply."

While NAGB and its sponsor, the U.S. Education Dept., hope the assessment will drive students to pursue tech-related jobs, they also have a much broader aim: to encourage the general public to become more engaged with the technological systems that pervade daily life in the 21st century. Too few people are armed with the "technological literacy" that a growing number of everyday tasks demand, such as evaluating medical treatments or buying a car with new features, Crovo says.

"Everyone should have an understanding of where technology comes from and who develops it," says Greg Pearson, senior program manager at the National Academy of Engineering, a Washington (D.C.)-based think tank. In 2005, Pearson oversaw the publication of "Tech Tally," which first proposed the idea of a national assessment of technological literacy to NAGB. "Technological choices influence our health and economic well-being, the types of jobs and recreation available, even our means of self-expression. How well citizens are prepared to make those choices depends in large part on their level of technological literacy," Pearson and his co-authors wrote in the research paper.

Turn of the Screw

To demonstrate how these types of skills might be assessed, "Tech Tally" also gathered a sampling of questions that have appeared in academic dissertations, state tests, and other previous tech assessments. One question asked whether sonar was most often used by bats, snakes, police, or air-traffic controllers. The correct answer is bats. Another asked which machinery part should be used to give something the greatest ease of service: welded joints, epoxy resin, rivets, or threaded screws. The right answer? Screws.

The tech industry has further cause to encourage tech literacy. Vendors of computers, servers, wide-screen TVs, and other electronics profit from smarter consumers. That's the case at Google, whose chief Internet evangelist, Vint Cerf, has volunteered to help develop the assessment framework. He says that even though Google's business model is based on advertising, that model assumes the tech literacy of its users. "If people aren't able to understand how to use our product, we won't be able to effectively deliver ads to them," Cerf says.

When the test is launched in 2012, it only will be taken by a sample population of students at one of three grade levels—fourth, eighth, or 12th—as a "probe," or pilot assessment, that will be reviewed by the Education Dept. If it is adopted as a regular part of a national assessment of skills called the Nation's Report Card, the test could help push standards for tech literacy in schools across the U.S. As tech literacy pioneer at Hofstra University David Burghardt puts it, there's a general maxim in education: "What is assessed is what's taught."

"Should Be a Core Subject"

That sentiment is echoed by Riverhead Middle School's Malanga, who sometimes feels the time and energy students can devote to his class is minimized by the strict national and state standards for other subjects like math and reading. "I think it should be a core subject," Malanga says, adding that this national assessment might be a step in that direction. "Sending kids out there without basic skills in technology is like tying their hands behind their backs."

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